Representing a moral center

Representing a moral center

Interfaith, multiracial clergy coalition resisted white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Elaine McArdle
About sixty clergy including Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 in an interfaith, nonviolent protest against a white supremacist rally.

About sixty clergy including Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 in an interfaith, nonviolent protest against a white supremacist rally (© 2017 Nora Rasman/UUA)

© 2017 Nora Rasman/UUA


About sixty clergy including Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 in an interfaith, nonviolent protest against a white supremacist rally, during a day that turned violent and left three people dead and dozens injured.

Although none of the clergy were injured, at one point a group of white supremacists charged at them before anti-fascists, or “antifa,” stepped in and violence erupted. A number of the clergy credited antifa for protecting their lives. Many of the clergy also provided assistance in the immediate aftermath of a vehicle plowing into a crowd of counter-protestors that left a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, dead, and 19 others injured.

During the day’s violence, a couple of members of the First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia, were “beaten up,” according to the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, senior minister, who said twenty-five to thirty members of her church went to Charlottesville to oppose the white supremacists. As has been extensively reported in the media, Pupke and others who spoke to UU World said that local and state police did not intervene when violence broke out between the alt-right and counter-protestors.

“The piece that was most unsettling for me was that the police seemed to abdicate their responsibility of keeping the peace and protecting the people of Charlottesville,” said Frederick-Gray. “As clergy, when we were standing arm in arm, we were facing off directly against armed right wing volunteer militia. They were armed with long guns, semi-automatic weapons, and camouflaged in military uniforms although they were not military. They claimed to be keeping the peace but that is not their job, they are not police, they were not accountable to the citizens of Charlottesville nor the state of Virginia, they were a volunteer military accountable only to their own ideology. And as they were lined up on the streets, the police were nowhere nearby.” In fact, between the clergy and law enforcement there was both a barricade and the armed militia.

Similarly, there appeared no effort by police to keep the white supremacists and counter-protestors separated in order to keep the peace, Frederick-Gray said.

Frederick-Gray did not directly witness the initial break-out of the violence between the white supremacists and the antifa, but she said, “It’s important to remember that a lot of people were hurt, and that a lot were in danger,” a danger that loomed not only on Saturday but Friday, too, when torch-bearing white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus. “The white supremacists came to bring violence against the community of Charlottesville,” she said.

Frederick-Gray said she went to Charlottesville after receiving the appeal from local clergy asking for help. “I think it’s absolutely important to show up as people of faith to confront white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and violent racialized hate. It is absolutely important for people of faith to stand up and reject hate.”

“In terms of what we do going forward, supporting this effort to remove Confederate monuments, showing up against white nationalists and white supremacists and the KKK is important,” said Frederick-Gray. “It’s also vital to remember that we also need to combat systems of criminalization and policing and racism and white supremacy that live in our policies and our structures as a society and as a country.”

“It’s vitally important that we understand that this campaign against violent white supremacy is not the only work,” said Frederick-Gray. “We have to understand the history, understand the new Jim Crow and the impact of mass incarceration in communities all over the country. We have to continue to show up with Black Lives Matter and communities of color and advocating for systemic changes that will bring liberation for all people.”

Frederick-Gray made a statement from Charlottesville on Saturday, posted to Facebook.

Congregate C'ville, a newly organized group of faith leaders in Charlottesville, had called upon clergy across the country to come to the city and oppose the white supremacists when a “Unite the Right” rally was scheduled for August 12 to protest removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. Frederick-Gray and other UU clergy answered the call.

On Friday night, hundreds of Jews, Muslims, Christians, UUs, and others, including Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of Justice & Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ and senior pastor of Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, came together to make a statement against white supremacy at an interfaith service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church. At around the same time, in one of many instances of anti-Semitism and racism over the weekend, members of the alt-right marched onto the nearby University of Virginia campus bearing torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “White lives matter.”

On Saturday, after a sunrise service at the historically black First Baptist Church, the interfaith clergy group marched arm in arm to Emancipation Park. In addition to Frederick-Gray, other Unitarian Universalist faith leaders who marched included Pupke; the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, with the UUA’s Congregational Life staff in the Southern Region; Christina Rivera, a religious educator, a trustee on the UUA board, and director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church UU (TJMC) in Charlottesville; the Rev. Susan Karlson; the Rev. Erik Wikstrom, minister at TJMC; the Rev. Kathleen C. Rolenz, and the Rev. Wayne Arnason.

West and the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a Christian minister with deep ties to Unitarian Universalism including Black Lives of UU and the 2015 and 2016 UUA General Assemblies, as well as Frederick-Gray and Smith, were in the front line of clergy who marched to the park. There, they knelt and sang “This Little Light of Mine,” as civilians in camouflage carrying semi-automatic rifles, who described themselves as militia, stood just feet in front of them.

As clergy members spoke briefly against white supremacy and in favor of love, alt-right protestors shouted homophobic and racist slurs.

“Spirit of God, help us reject this paradigm of domination and let us remember our common unity as humanity and part of creation,” said Frederick-Gray, adding, “May our hearts be free of fear and hate . . . for everyone is inside, within the circle of love.”

Invoking John Coltrane, West said, “Let us never be afraid in the face of hatred and let us bear witness to love, knowing justice is what love looks like when it’s public.”

Speaking in Spanish, Rivera said that ancestors were there protecting the group. Some among the alt-right began yelling that she should be speaking in English, said Rivera, who organized a racial justice conference in Charlottesville last spring, where faith leaders who later created Congregate C’ville and members of Deep Abiding Love Project, a training and support group for nonviolent action led by Sekou, connected and began to build relationships.

After chanting and singing for about an hour, half of the faith leader group gathered on the steps that provided the main access into the park and locked arms to prevent

people from entering, Smith said, but a group of white supremacists broke through the line. Sekou then urged the clergy to hold the line although they agreed to leave if it got violent, according to Smith.

The white supremacists carried flags and wooden swords and shields with white supremacist or other alt-right symbols. “There was something really distressing about seeing how ordinary they are, like a guy you might see at Home Depot or the bank, everyday white dudes,” said Smith. “So that’s very disconcerting; it’s not like skinheads, like there was an outward manifestation” of their views.

Pupke and others said the presence of heavily armed militia was frightening, especially as police chose to stand at some distance and not get involved when the fighting broke out. “The local and state law enforcement completely abandoned the streets to the militiamen carrying M16s,” said Pupke, who stood opposite a man with an M16 rifle and another man in a flak jacket who carried a minimum of 220 rounds of ammunition in magazines and clips.

While Smith said it’s possible the police maintained a distance from the fights in order to not engage themselves in violence against people breaking the law, “it meant those of us there nonviolently were in extreme danger.”

When another group of alt-right people began to congregate about 50 yards from the clergy, antifa also gathered, Smith said. “That’s when it got violent,” he said, with punches being thrown and other assaults.

While Smith said he and others have been trained in techniques for dealing with the police during protests, they were not trained in dealing with militia armed with semi-automatic weapons, nor with counter-protestors who were not committed to nonviolence.

Smith said that if the antifa had not engaged with the white supremacist group “they would have trampled us underfoot or beat us or whatever they were going to do. [The antifa] took the punches and we were able to leave the park.”

“Antifa saved my life twice today and protected us,” Sekou posted on Facebook. “I’m sure we’re alive today because of those folks,” said Rivera.

The faith leaders then dispersed to different points and tried to de-escalate any conflicts through their presence, Rivera said. When they learned that someone had driven a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, they ran to the scene, arriving before ambulances. They provided cover for the people who were injured, and escorted those who were wounded but able to walk to be transported to the hospital by car, Rivera said.

A member of the Richmond UU congregation who is a physician rendered aid to a woman injured by the car and stayed with her at the hospital until Saturday evening, Pupke said.

Pupke said it “really mattered” that Frederick-Gray chose to show up and march in the front line of clergy, and she also thanked Rivera and Congregate C’ville for their leadership. “We hear so many reports that religion is no longer relevant in America, that it is a dying phenomenon, and yet by our simple presence in our clerical garb we sent the moral question forward, of how we will be human beings together on this planet,” said Pupke.

“I think it was important to represent a moral center, to protest that it wasn’t just about preservation of any individual ethnic group but it’s really about our shared humanity, and I think we were able to stand for that,” said Smith.

The next day, at Sunday services, a number of UU congregations addressed the events during worship. Frederick-Gray and Smith attended the service at TJMC in Charlottesville, at which UU poet and activist Christopher D. Sims gave a powerful reading, Rivera said.

TJMC was open through the weekend as a safe space for those needing shelter, including a separate space for people of color and trans people. In the week after the violence, TJMC offered community care groups and one-on-one counseling with trauma experts and therapists for people affected by the events. TJMC is accepting donations to help offset costs for the event, including housing, transportation, and food for organizers, clergy, and support teams, and to help fund trauma ministers. Funds raised beyond costs will be used for ongoing racial justice work and pastoral care.

Going forward, people who want to stand up to the alt-right will have to become engaged locally, Smith said, adding, “It’s not like Charlottesville is the only city with monuments to white supremacy.” Noting that the alt-right is planning a rally in Boston on August 19, he said, “This is a national thing, and I think our tactics are going to have to become more refined and sophisticated,” especially when violence is coming not from police but other groups.

“The point is to recognize that this isn’t about the statue, it’s about white supremacy and the alt-right and the neo-Nazis,” said Rivera. The incidents in Charlottesville showed that “police are not going to protect us,” she said. “We collectively as clergy are going to have to be called to take action and practice our faith in a new way.”

“We are going to need both a theological response and an action response,” Rivera continued. “This is not being prepared for police action, this is being prepared for terrorism, for domestic terrorism and other citizens creating violence and terrorism, and that’s different from most of what we’ve seen before.”

Listen to this article